Who are the real rotters here?

Charles Cowling


Is this a Welsh thing, or is it beginning to happen all over the UK? In Wales, according to a BBC news article, the number of public health funerals is alleged to have doubled in a decade.

This is contradicted by the view of the Local Government Association. In a survey dated 2010 it reports:  

The number of public health funerals held by local authorities has remained broadly consistent across the last three financial years (2007/8 to 2009/10) … Two fifths (40 per cent) thought there had been some increase, the top three reasons being “higher numbers of people dying with family and friends unwilling to contribute to the costs of the funeral” (59 per cent of respondents); “higher numbers of people dying with family or friends unable to contribute to the costs of a funeral” (56 per cent); and “higher numbers of people dying with no friends or family” (49 per cent) … A calculated cost per public health funeral revealed that, on average, funerals cost £959

Whatever the truth of the BBC’s assertion, there may be evidence that, in Wales, there is growing reluctance of undertakers to arrange funerals for families who are skint.

It is difficult not to sympathise with the undertakers. They carry plenty of bad debt as it is. When they agree to arrange a funeral for a client who is making an application to the Social Fund for a Funeral Payment, they have no guarantee that the application will be successful. So slow is the Department of Work and Pensions in processing these claims that the dead person will have been dust-to-dusted long before verdict + cheque come through. For an undertaker, taking on such a funeral is a gamble. You can see why they might not like the look of the odds, the more so in an age where money owed to an undertaker is no longer necessarily seen as a debt of honour.

At the same time, to turn a family away is to risk considerable damage to a reputation for caring community-mindedness, the cornerstones of an undertaker’s good name. The BBC news article highlights this:

Joanne Sunter, from Portmead in Swansea, said she was turned away by four funeral directors because she was unable to pay a deposit of hundreds of pounds up front.

“I was heartbroken. My mother was in a mortuary rotting and none of these people would help me,” she said.

Note that Ms Sunter does not direct her anger at the DWP. But then it’s not clear that she is eligible for a Funeral Payment. If she isn’t, then where does responsibility for her plight lie?

A little while ago Nick Gandon, in this blog, sparked discussion about the way the Funeral Payment is administered – here. If funeral directors were to come together and refuse to take on applicants to the Social Fund, then, as Norfolk Boi had it, “The DWP would have to solve the situation they have created” – by making up its mind a lot faster.

The Minister for Work and Pensions, Steve Webb, has another idea, according to Teresa Evans. He’d like to substitute the Funeral Payment with a crisis loan, relieving pressure on the Exchequer and loading debt onto the poorest in society.

Teresa thinks the best way for the Welsh to bring their undertakers to heel is by taking matters into their own hands and doing everything themselves. There may be two schools of thought about the feasibility of that.

I can’t find any recent figures on successful applications for a Funeral Payment, so it’s hard to know if there’s been a sharp increase in recent years. I have only been able to discover that between 1988-89 and 1993-94 awards increased from 37,000 to 72,000 with a corresponding rise in expenditure from £18.4m to £62.9m. I guess the number continues to rise.  

Which is why I have found my mind wandering towards what I can only shamefacedly describe as a conspiracy theory.

We live in an age where fecklessness is under attack by all political parties. Tories talk of a ‘culture of irresponsibility’ and Labour talks of a ‘something-for-nothing culture’. Lib Dems presumably say something halfway between the two. They all agree on the need for instilling some social discipline in what’s come to be known as the underclass.

Note that Steve Thomas, chief executive of the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA), reckons the trend towards public health funerals is going to grow. He adds: “Now, it’s not a trend any of us would welcome, but it does reflect the nature of society and probably the problems we have in the economy at the moment.” Note the order in which he lists those two trendsetters. We can take it, I think, that when Mr Thomas talks of “the nature of society” he is referring here to 1) an increasing number of feckless people wilfully neglecting to make financial provision for a funeral and 2) a “higher numbers of people dying with family and friends unwilling to contribute to the costs of the funeral” . If that is so, ask yourself what is the likely effect of publishing Ms Sunter’s photo. If this is the look of applicants to the Social Fund it is not necessarily a good look and may even be a stigmatising look.

So here’s my conspiracy theory. Is the DWP, by making the applications process such a gut-wrenching nightmare, hoping to shock and shame the poor into setting money aside like they used in the good old days when the man from the Pru would pop round on a Friday evening and collect their two bob?

If so, it would seem to be discriminating against the deserving and the undeserving poor alike.


Over at WhatDoTheyKnow.com they’ve been making masses of FOI requests for information about public health funerals. Find them here.

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Simon Lamb
9 years ago

Searching the DWP website (‘funeral payment’) will direct you to all sorts of relevant information. In 2008-9 there were 69 000 claims with 41000 accepted (average total payment £1200). Rejection rate of 40% has been consistent for many years – mainly because the DWP considers other family members should be able to pay for the funeral. They have also introduced a phone line to help people assess their eligibility (0845 060 0265). Funeral directors need to be familiar with the conditions of the funeral payment and have a go at completing one of the application forms – this is the… Read more »

Teresa Evans
9 years ago

I dont know that I have made clear how crisis loans could be awarded Charles. It was simply my interpretation of what Steve Webb stated during the debate. I could be wrong, but I sincerely hope not. Scrapping funeral payments could be a distastrous move.

Sundress…believe me Charles not a pretty site lol

Teresa Evans
9 years ago

Good piece Charles. I think the recent report on Wales is an example of the BBC not doing their homework before putting a story out. If they had, surely they would be keen to report the average cost of cremation in Wales, opposed to the national average. Neither do I believe that the report made mention of the DWP and funeral payments, but as this has been brought into the topic I should like to add some of my own views…for what they might be worth. I am not convinced that there is a growing reluctance of undertakers not to… Read more »

9 years ago

Jonathan, a couple of years ago,I conducted a survey involving several local authorities and hospitals representing a broad selection across the UK. Not wholly accurate, but more a “toe-in-the-water”. Around 90% (out of a total of 44 relies) met FD’s inclusive accounts of less than £900 for their public funerals. BUT, as you so rightly point out, “not a penny left for the professional fee”. Few undertakers make any profit out of a public funeral. Most make a loss. It’s my perception that many contract to undertake these funerals as a “public service”, or as part of a wider contract,… Read more »

9 years ago

Nick, I’m not sure funeral directors do provide a funeral for under a grand. In these parts, that would barely cover cremation costs and doctors’ fees, certainly not a coffin and most definitely not a penny left for the ‘professional fee’. The social fund payment is only a contribution to the costs – a fixed sum (of, what is it, £7-900?) plus some disbursment fees including cremation etc. The person responsible for the undertaker’s bill has to magic the rest out of thin air. A local council or hospital funeral is a different beast – these chaps are responsible for… Read more »

9 years ago

Playing the “devil’s advocate” for a moment, I wonder if people ask themselves the question…. If funeral directors can provide a public funeral for under a grand for the local council or hospital, why can’t they do it for joe public? Why is the public paying an average of £2720 for essentially the same basic process? Is it that we now expect too much of a funeral – and funeral directors? Have we been cajoled in “buying a better, more expensive product” by the undertakers, or have we “driven the upward demand” ourselves? In this world of consumer choice, could… Read more »

gloria mundi
9 years ago

I’d do it for nowt….

gloria mundi
9 years ago

Shrewd stuff, Charles. As far as I remember from the bit on the telly, Ms Sunter, sadly (as we seem to say about every tenth word these days), was not, in the end, eligible for the DWP payment. The kindly FD who took on the funeral for her has made arrangements, he said, for her to pay him £50 per month. Not a good story, not a kindly choice of pic. Good luck to both Ms S and the FD. ps OK, some of us are feckless, irresponsible, selfish, want something for nothing. (Speaking only of myself here..) But every… Read more »